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17 July 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

Did the Tories screw over new mother Jo Swinson on pairing? If so, things are going to get nasty

The Lib Dem deputy leader, currently on maternity leave, says the government promised to cancel out her vote on Brexit amendments tonight - but went back on its word. 

By Helen Lewis

Tonight, Lib Dem deputy leader – and new mother to Gabriel, born on 29 June – Jo Swinson made an extraordinary allegation against the government’s whips. They had, she said, promised her a Tory MP to “pair” with her for two key Brexit divisions to cancel out her absence from the Chamber – only for that Conservative MP to turn up and vote.

The most high-stakes of today’s votes was on an amendment tabled by rebel Conservative pro-Europeans, which would have obliged the UK to join a customs union with the EU if no alternative way to facilitate frictionless trade is agreed by 21 January 2019. In the end, MPs voted 307 to 301 to overturn it.

There will inevitably be anger directed at Labour’s pro-Brexit rebels, who voted with the government (Kate Hoey, Frank Field and Graham Stringer, plus Kelvin Hopkins, who is currently suspended from the party).

But this evening, another controversy has emerged. Swinson, who is on maternity leave, says that she was promised a “pair” for the vote – Tory chairman Brandon Lewis. Under Commons rules, MPs who have to be absent for key votes are matched with another parliamentarian from the opposite side, ensuring that both “missing” votes cancel each other out. 

Swinson says that she was assured earlier today that Lewis would miss the vote – but the parliamentary record shows that he voted against two crunch rebel amendments. A government source told Sam Coates of the Times that “Brandon cocked up“. But as Rob Hutton of Bloomberg points out, Brandon Lewis was missing for earlier votes, but present for the two key divisions where the government desperately wanted to avoid defeat.  “He cocked up on the two tight votes. He uncocked up on all the others,” writes Hutton. 

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In a tweet, Lewis replied to say it was an “honest mistake made by the whips in fast-moving circumstances”. 

Swinson is unconvinced, saying it was “neither honest nor a mistake”:

At 10.40pm, the Conservatives’ chief Julian Smith apologised to Swinson, saying Lewis was asked to vote “in error”.

Whether Lewis broke the pairing agreement deliberately or by mistake, a breakdown in trust between the parties has potentially significant ramfications for the whole remainder of the parliament – and for MPs’ health and wellbeing. The House of Commons rules were designed in an age where only men could become MPs, and they have never been reformed to accommodate maternity (or paternity, or adoption) leave. Female MPs do the best they can – Swinson was present for key votes while 41 weeks’ pregnant, but is now recovering from the birth of baby Gabriel.

A deliberate breach would be an insult to the female MPs on all sides who have been fighting for “proxy voting”. Swinson is one of several pregnant MPs and new mothers – including Labour’s Cat Smith and Laura Pidcock – who have been pressuring the government, along with Mother of the House Harriet Harman and Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee, to introduce the measure.

Proxy voting would allow those on maternity leave – as well as sick or dying MPs, the recently bereaved, or those with caring responsiblities – to appoint another person to vote in their place. It would also allow an MP’s constituents to see their voting record on all key issues rather than having them recorded as missing. It could mean an end to pairing, and the “gentleman’s agreement” system which underpins it. 

Tonight, it looks as though that “gentleman’s agreement” is under huge strain, anyway. If it breaks down, the lack of proxy voting sends a disgraceful signal that parliament is hostile to pregnant MPs and new mothers. Efforts to make the Commons home to a more diverse range of viewpoints and experiences will falter if women of childbearing age are unable to represent their constituents. Parliament should not be institutionally hostile to anyone with a uterus who wants to use it.

There is real anger tonight about Swinson’s claims. If opposition parties lose trust in pairing, then prepare for some extremely grisly days ahead. As James Graham’s play This House shows, during the 1974-79 parliament, when pairing broke down, sick and dying MPs faced the agonising choice of whether to hobble, or be carried, through the voting lobbies. It is generally agreed that the stress and long hours shortened some politicians’ lives. In June, Labour’s Naz Shah was pushed through the lobby on another Brexit bill in a wheelchair, while still on morphine. 

The storm tonight adds to an already febrile atmosphere in the Commons, where Anna Soubry yesterday denounced some of her fellow Tory MPs for backing an economically disastrous Brexit which would not affect them, and rebels from the pro-Brexit European Research Group forced the government to accept their amendments to avoid another humiliating defeat. Tempers are running high and both main parties are suffering Brexit-related trauma: there are already calls for the deselection of pro-Brexit Labourites Hoey and co.

Tonight and yesterday the government narrowly avoided several potential defeats. But at what cost?